Even as the Covid Omicron variant surge is shutting down US campuses, dozens of institutions have quickly reversed mandatory vaccine policies after a federal judge blocked a Biden administration requirement for them. These institutions, mainly in politically conservative southern and western parts of the US, suggest that the court ruling means they are no longer allowed to impose vaccination.
The ruling by Stan Baker, a Trump-appointed federal court judge based in Georgia, doesn’t itself outlaw vaccination mandates. But the judge’s rejection of the Biden policy leaves many institutions subject to the orders of their state government leaders, who have embraced and amplified Trump-era hostilities towards face masks and vaccines.
The likelihood of renewed campus closures is made clear by Cornell University, which shut its main campus in central New York state and shifted final exams online after tallying more than 900 new Covid cases in a week. Cornell has been mandating on-campus vaccination all semester, and as a private institution it is not affected by the Biden mandate or Judge Baker’s order against it.
In one announcement typical of the public universities halting their vaccine mandates, Northern Arizona University says the court order “for the time being prohibits enforcement of the vaccination requirements for federal contractors”. The University of Wisconsin-Madison, ending its requirement, says the judge’s decision and other unspecified legal processes “may impact our campus’ ability to require the vaccine”.
The leading US higher education association counters such interpretations, making clear in written guidance that the federal court ruling — upholding a claim brought by the University System of Georgia and several state government allies — only lifts the federal mandate. “It’s important to note,” the 1,700-member American Council on Education (ACE) says, “that these decisions don’t bar institutions in states that don’t prohibit vaccine requirements from moving forward with their policies.”
ACE argued during the initial outbreak last year that the pandemic was so severe that it required a federal bailout of US higher education, and it succeeded in convincing Congress to provide nearly $70 billion (Rs.518,000 crore) in emergency assistance to shuttered campuses. Now, with the US death toll from Covid hitting 800,000 and the Omicron variant pushing it higher, some of those same beneficiaries — having collected as much as $200 million apiece in federal recovery aid — are among the institutions refusing to make masks and vaccines compulsory.